25 February 2011

The Politics of Going Beyond Politics

I very rarely speak in the Council Chamber. It is not the place for honest exchange of views. Last night I spoke in the two debates: the Corporate Plan (the plan for the city) and the Budget. It was difficult to condense my thoughts in 2-3 minutes, which is what might have caused the consternation, confusion and support from across the benches. On the other hand, it might have been quoting Aristotle in the original greek :)

What I meant to say was that the role of government has changed radically. This should not mean that ‘there is no such thing as a society’, nor should it mean privatisation of services. It means that we need to create society anew.

We need to think of what people value rather than what services we are used to deliver. In my research, I see churches providing many services for the local community, which are paid and delivered by church members. I believe the Council should assist those efforts. I also believe private donors should help too.

When I said that I don’t want my party to assume what I value and what my constituents value, I meant that I don’t want them to think of services as they are delivered today but of what is actually needed and valued. We need to think of services as activities which might be delivered in a different way and in different places.

I said that we should forget our party lines because I can see the valuable work that happens in committees where councillors of all parties sit together. The job of rebuilding society anew is too big and too important for political point scoring.
Our most important allegiance is to the people out there, not the party.

It shouldn’t be about cutting costs or simply sharing the costs with others. It needs to be about re-framing public services together with people out there, together with organisations, individual citizens and businesses. I’m calling for councillors to work in cross-party groups, or task & finish groups, or whatever other way, leave their colours aside, and start thinking for real.

That is the zoon politikon, the political animal, of Aristotle.

(I'll try to upload the webcast when it becomes available)

24 February 2011

Human rights are British values

Good for Ken Clarke for avoiding to take the populist stance. Instead he focussed rightly on how to make the European Court of Human Rights work properly. This doesn’t mean pandering to the worst sentiments of the population.

My grudge with MPs is that they don’t understand that their populist rhetoric (see last post) harms us all, even them. When governments lack popularity, they blame somebody else. So our enlightened government blame the judges and Brussels. They reclaim sovereignty without having clear what sovereignty actually means. If sovereignty is of the people then the people should decide, which makes the foundations of representative democracy shake. Beware of what you wish; it might just come back and bite.

The point of a representative democracy is to allow the building of consensus instead of the fragmentation of interests pursued with no regard for the interests of others. Decisions need to be taken at the most appropriate level. There’s no point in talking tough or soft on immigration, the environment and the economy on your own. These things don’t stop at our borders, therefore, close co-operation is essential. One of the most important factors in bringing the economy down was the lack of transparency and the low level regulation across Europe and especially in the UK and USA. The global economy is a fact; we need to make it work properly. No country subsists on its own.

Politicians blame Europe and, yet, we all like the fact that EU directives ensure the safety of our food. Indeed we demand better labelling of products. We like competition rules that are fair on consumers rather than favour specific companies (which is what nation states tend to push for!). We all like the fact that, if we have an accident, or we fall ill, or we need treatment for a chronic illness, and we are abroad (within the EU), we have free access to healthcare. Yet, we want Europe ‘off our backs’. I don’t. I want Europe to do more.

We might think the NHS as a ‘national treasure’, but there are differences between the health system in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. People have been travelling across Europe shopping for better health treatments for sometimes. We need a set of patients’ rights that would apply across Europe.
There are people who commute regularly across countries. We need legislation to guarantee that they are not penalised. According to research, there are people counting the days they can spend in their country of birth meeting families not to incur into a change in the tax system. Legislation is for citizens, to protect them and enable them to carry on with their lives. It is not a badge of national pride.

This is because we have rights that derive from the dignity we give to being human. Human rights are not a kind concession of nation states, but a claim in front of any other party. Nation states exist in our minds and they might serve some purpose, but human beings exist in concrete reality. There will always be instances of plaintiffs who are vexatious and trying to make a point in court. There will be instances of judges getting it wrong and making uninspired or controversial decisions.

This is human nature. It does not invalidate the importance of human rights. It reminds us of our duty to make it work, not to brand it as foreign. This is where Blair and Cameron have been wrong when talking about ‘British values’. British values are European values and human values. If our own government can't grasp human rights, what hope have we got of delegitimising terrorism?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born out of the ashes of the millions who died in the Second World War. They perished largely because of nationalism. Their deaths cause the international community to draft a declaration for the recognition of every one’s rights. Did they die in vain?

22 December 2010

If I were Nick Clegg ...

The Lib Dems (in England) have been out of government for a long time and always the third party, never the official opposition, so the whole experience of being pragmatic and consistent is new. By contrast, in Wales, Scotland and councils around the country, the Lib Dems had to take responsibility and run cities and countries. They made mistakes, had impractical and expensive policies. They got things wrong before getting them right, because politics is a day to day experiment that needs to be flexible to change, detours and restarts.

The Lib Dems are painfully waking up to the practical reality of government. They are been torn asunder from their beloved policies, and fail to see what politics is. It cannot be ‘my party, right or wrong’, it cannot be ‘our policies, no matter what’, it cannot be rhetoric; it must be pragmatism. Politics is about translation. Politicians need to translate ideals and vision into reality. If ideals are not put in practice in such a way that they benefit people, they are but rhetoric.

All political parties have lost vision and ideals, but kept the empty rhetoric. They are wedded to pathetic policies and no understanding of solutions. All political parties have policies that should not get aired, let alone reach a manifesto and, God forbid, actually be implemented. This is why nobody got elected. They failed to grab the country’s imagination. The Coalition’s ‘New Politics’ was a good start, a beginning of trying to see things differently, an attempt at vision.

Now politics needs to start on all benches. The Tories need to see that some of their policies are half-baked ideas (they don’t seem to have thought much about the Big Society, for example); Labour need to be constructive, not petty; and the Lib Dems need to stop being a punch bag and develop a vision of their role in government.

If I were Nick Clegg, I would apologise to my MPs. They’ve been going through a lot of change and taken a lot of criticism. They have never been in that position before. They never had to really detach themselves from their rhetoric and question their sacred cows. Labour took its time before being able to ditch its sacred cows and follow the lead of Tony Blair. It is undoubtedly a painful process, especially for those who so closely identify themselves with the party. Clegg needs to ‘feel the pain’ and lead his crew to shed the old certainties that give comfort and take up the challenge of being real. As Winston Churchill once said:

"Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes you must do what is required."

12 December 2010

Fees, lies and the Lib Dems

The story is that the Lib Dems, ever so close to students, signed a pledge not to raise tuition fees and reneged on it once in power. The broken promise is causing revolt on the streets and threatens the extinction of the party at the next election. As a narrative, the story is coherent, touches every emotional chord from hope to betrayal, and from trust to suspicion. It is a classic story, it has some truth in it, but it’s the wrong story.

The Lib Dems showed immaturity before the election promising something they couldn’t keep. Once in power, they had to grow up quickly and act like grown-ups, but they missed a trick. I believe they got a fairer deal for university funding on the basis of the Browne’s review, commissioned by Labour, and very likely to be implemented by Labour. However, the Lib Dems failed to come to terms with their former self, apologise profusely and propose a bolder plan for the future of higher education.

All political parties have failed to ask the fundamental questions: what are universities for? What is education for? What kind of education? What education should be subsidised? You cannot deal with education funding unless you have a clear idea about what education is. The criteria for funding for theoretical research cannot be the same as those for research in applied disciplines. It is important that higher education has different streams of funding to reflect the nature and function of what the money is used for. Students understand this, so why can’t the government engage with students and have a mature discussion?

Personally, I would have an ‘academic’ path for more theoretical studies; a ‘professional’ path for the training of doctors, lawyers, architects and so on; and a ‘vocational’ or technical (or whatever you want to call it) for the more work-focussed or applied disciplines. This does not mean that the academic path is ‘better’ than the vocational one. If you want to be an actor, RADA is, among many other non-University establishments, one of the best places for dramaturgical training. We don’t look down at people from RADA, do we? Personally, I don’t look down at tradesmen who are competent and fair either. This is because I don’t believe in just one standard according to which people are to be valued. I’m not a scientist, an electrician or a doctor, I’d like to think that I’m not useless because of that. I accept I might be useless for other reasons :)

Further, it seems to me that the vocational institutes would be better placed to attract private money, have a link with the industry and a real benefit to the economy. However, education should not be left to ‘the market’. The classics might not have much 'purchasing power', but we should value them as a society and that’s why government funding needs to be available to ensure valuable learning and research don’t simply disappear.

I appreciate that the ‘fees issue’ is a hot potato, mostly because political parties have so far played games with it and failed to discuss education seriously. However, the ‘battle of Trafalgar square’, by focussing on fees, lies and the Lib Dems, prevents any discussion on higher education. I fear the Tories would quite like a marketisation of universities, which is now easier to achieve (step by step) given that all the anger will be poured onto the Lib Dems. I understand why some Lib Dem MPs voted against fees to honour the pledge, but I sincerely hope that they will now put pressure on the leadership to show more courage and boldness.

Politics should not be about entrenched positions of left and right, about the ‘sacred cows’ that cannot be touched simply because things have always been done that way. Politics should be about asking the question: what kind of society do we want?

05 May 2010

Election 2010: Immigration

Countries can control immigration as much as they can control an ash cloud. If the wind is in favour, meaning there aren’t any jobs, migrants will go somewhere else. I’m not sure this is an enviable position to be in. The level of immigration is generally an indicator of economic growth. Britain has been blessed with skilled immigrants, and this has been key to economic success; yet nobody has the courage to say this.

It’s not all good, of course. There are certainly problems associated with immigration, such as race for jobs, crime, and, more rarely, cultural clashes. Unemployment is on the rise, but it’s mobility which helps economic development, not protectionism. The US economy has always relied on internal (and external) immigration. The government should help training and re-training people, but also aid internal and external mobility. It is worth remembering that it is not immigrants who steal ‘British jobs’, but manufactures that move, almost overnight, to Eastern Europe, China, India, Brazil, taking away thousands of jobs. I suppose it’s easier to see the enemy in someone who looks ‘different’.

Immigration can also foster crime, which is mostly the result of trafficking and immigrants finding difficult to have a legal permit to live and work in the UK.
People are bought and sold; or pay a lot of money for a chance in another country; or they are exploited for their hard labour with hardly any pay. The solution is not in trying to stop immigration but in making it efficient and legal. Complicated systems only mean more illegal immigration. Politicians want to keep the numbers down forgetting that we are talking about people not goods.

The whole game of ‘how many’ and ‘what kind of immigrant’ is nauseating. I suppose I wouldn’t get any points. I’m not a nurse or a doctor, a teacher or a plumber. I have a ‘different’ religion, speak another language and I’m yet again at University trying to figure out what I’ll do ‘when I grow up’. I’m very liberal when it comes to immigration because I think it’s good for the economy, because it challenges the ‘host culture’ into redefining itself and looking at its core values, and because it’s human beings we’re talking about.

The media are keen on seeing cultural clashes everywhere and make the flawed link with immigration. The multiple cultures which meet, overlap and, at times, clash in the ‘public sphere’ happen in every generation and help us define ourselves. It is important that they do not degenerate into violence, but that there’s frank exchange of views. Liberal democracy depends on the accommodation of diversity; otherwise it descends into the imposition of the interests and views of a selected few.

Yet, the political rhetoric on immigration is always about keeping numbers down. There's no uplifting tone talking about making the UK and Europe stronger and more diverse. Immigration is a challenge. It is also an opportunity to be a place where everybody has a chance to a decent life regardless of where they are coming from, their religion, sex, age, disability etc. It is our opportunity to rise up to the image of democracy to which we aspire.

Election 2010: Human Rights

The Tories’ love affair with the ruthless and obtuse right-wing press has led them to the crazy idea of dumping the Human Rights Act (1998). The Human Rights Act enabled law courts in the UK to ensure human rights are respected without having to go to the European Court of Human Rights. The Act was a fundamental step in constitutional reform in the UK protecting citizens’ rights and liberties rather than leaving it to the benevolence of the state.

I suppose Cameron taps into that romantic belief that Britain has always been and will always be a liberal country, and that this liberalism is preserved by Parliament. This only shows crass ignorance of the past and the present and bewildering naivety. Even Dicey, who was the great advocate of parliamentary primacy, recognised that a written constitution and Bill of Rights would have been essential to prevent an elected dictatorship. Labour have passed draconian legislation counting on their majority. Remember the Lords trying to stop the anti-terrorism act in 2005?

No country has a liberal DNA. That’s why constitutions and checks and balances are so important. They are a very recent thing. They are the result of hundreds of years of oppression, of absolute power, of wars. Our conception of freedom and rights has matured over a long period of time and it’s still developing. The Human Rights Act (1998) comes from the European Convention of Human Rights (1950), which comes from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the human response to the many millions who died in WWII and the horrific acts perpetrated in the name of the nation. Those rights cost us the lives of millions. Did they really die in vain?

04 May 2010

Election 2010: The 'national interest'

There’s no point in being virtuous on your own. There's no point in wishing to be on our own. We’re connected to one another, across the globe, more than ever before and I raise my glass to that. The right-wing press mantra that ‘all legislation comes from Brussels’ fails to understand the reality of Europe and of member states. Alas, aside from the Lib Dems, both the Tories and Labour have sided more with the narrow-minded views of a certain press than with the interest of citizens.

Across Europe, national governments have traditionally fought against each other to favour big businesses in their territory with no regard for the rights and interest of their citizens. The European Court of Justice found itself deciding against national governments to protect the citizens of those governments. With businesses being transnational, multinational or, simply, located in tax havens, co-operation with European partners is in everybody’s interest. More importantly, issues such as immigration, climate, transports and tax avoiodance, to name a few, can only be tackled through cross-boundaries rules and co-operation.

Last year’s financial meltdown should have been a powerful call for co-ordinated action across Europe giving us a platform on the international arena. Single European countries cannot ensure any protection and cannot call themselves out of the game. The crisis in Greece makes financial transparency across Europe imperative. It also calls for markets to be regulated to prevent ‘vulture ventures’ against national debts, as we’re seeing in Greece. It’s not that by being outside the eurozone, we’re safe and dry. Remember Black Wednesday?

Yet, while Obama is busy tightening the rules across the pond, European leaders squabble and retreat to their national nests. The rhetoric of the 'national interest' is a smoke-screen behind which lies fear and ignorance. The real national interest lies in fair and transparent rules, not in protectionism. An enlightened leader should understand that the markets need tightening and that auditing of European member states would prevent crises such as that of Greece. Prime Ministers tend to think that they have a democratic mandate to do whatever they want. They confuse their party's line with what the people want. However, the interest of people in the UK or Italy are pretty similar. Pitting countries against each other only damages European citizens.

The European Parliament is the only democratically elected international body. It is where European citizens can make their voice heard. Alas, on today's political scene there are no De Gasperi, Schuman or Adenauer, only petty rivalries, inflated egos and hopeless incompetence. It is our democracy they are playing with under the pretense of working for 'the national interest'. This game of undermining Europe only means dwarfing Europe on the international scene where China, India and Brazil are growing in importance by the day. Keeping away from ‘Europe’ means keeping away from the place where the citizens' interest can be furthered. We are not safer outside, only ‘on our own’.

03 May 2010

Election 2010: Greed

There appears to be a general election, so I thought I’d join the mountain of information, misinformation and propaganda clogging up the media. I find a lot to dislike in most policies from all parties. Mind you, policies are at best a suggestion, rather than a programme, bearing no resemblance to the ‘finished product’ of implementation. Ideology having been long defunct, it is rhetoric that tells us more about a party than anything else.

Gordon is bitter, which means he's struggling to be positive and defend Labour's record in government. Clegg has been impersonating Obama more credibly than Cameron. The rhetoric is that of change, but with such an unfair electoral system, it’s difficult to believe change is possible without a hung Parliament. Cameron has lost his 'compassion' and, aside from trying clumsily to look like Obama, the only idea that comes across is that of a 'small government' and Britain keeping away from the rest of the world.

But there’s something much more problematic in this election’s rhetoric, which is more evident in the Tories’ narrative. It is an understanding of the world and Britain’s place in it grounded on dogmatism, ignorance, and fear.

The dogma of a smaller government

Government needs to be streamlined, but this should start at the central level rather than the local one, which has already been vexed in recent years. I doubt the Tories (or whoever) are prepared to face another winter of discontent and really cut central government, although the debt won’t go down on its own. Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is fine (I was advocating it with the Lib Dems long ago!), but it is nothing new. It has already been done by the Labour government, albeit often from a top-down approach. Reducing government needs to be done with a strategy in mind, not dogma. The key to the ‘Big Society’ is in local government acting as co-ordinator rather than main deliverer of public services. The private and third sectors can deliver good public services, but this requires effective regulation and transparency. Profit making should not trump upon the need of vulnerable people and the rights of service users. I shiver thinking of the privatisation of the railways. Will they do better this time?

An ignorant economy

Politicians are on the dock and rightly so for their disconnection from the population. They have been unfairly bundled up with the bankers, which will make regulation of markets hard to achieve. The problem with the markets lies in the lack of transparency and the sheer chutzpah of many in the sector selling rubbish products to clients whilst betting against them. It takes gutsy politicians to put in place sound controls.

Both Labour and the Tories prefer watching from afar thinking of their back garden and don’t realise that in finance it’s one green or brown field. Alas, Merkel has recently shown the same small-mindedness. Instead of being honest with her electorate telling them that rescuing Greece from the sharks of the market is in everyone’s interest, she talked tough and undermined markets’ confidence.

‘National’ politicians need to gain a better grasp of the economy, which, alas, doesn’t stop at the border. Instead of being inward-looking and fearful, our countries’ leaders need to work together to keep in check speculative financiers’ callous greed and dodgy practices. Toward the end of his life, Adam Smith was tirelessly telling government to regulate the markets. The markets are not virtuous otherworldly creatures behaving rationally for the common good. They are made up by people, who have a tendency to act like predators.

… more on this later.